Bishop Easterling's Decision of Law concerning the 2019 Annual Conference Session
DECISION OF LAW
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, episcopal leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, recently issued this decision in response to a request for a Ruling of Law by the Rev. Robert Barnes on May 30. The Judicial Council is expected to review the decision when it meets Oct 20-Nov. 1.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
The questions of law addressed in this decision were posed during the 2019 annual session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church, which convened in Baltimore on Wednesday, May 29, and concluded on Saturday, June 1, 2019. The questions were posed by the Rev. Robert Barnes during a plenary session held on Thursday, May 30. Rev. Barnes’s questions, however, related to actions taken by the clergy session a day earlier, on May 29.
At bottom, Rev. Barnes’s questions challenge the clergy session’s votes to approve the commissioning and ordination of the same two persons that were the focus of Judicial Council Decision (“JCD”) 1368. Background regarding those persons can be found in JCD 1368. For purposes of responding to Rev. Barnes’s questions, the relevant facts are these:
- Shortly after the clergy session convened on Wednesday, May 29, a motion was made by the Rev. Katie Bishop to vote to approve all clergy candidates in a given class pursuant to a single motion, rather than on a candidate-by-candidate basis. In other words, one motion would be made to approve the admission into provisional membership of all candidates that the Board of Ordained Ministry (“B00M”) had recommended for election as provisional members, and another motion would seek approval of all candidates BOOM had recommended to become members in full connection.
- The clergy session voted in favor of Rev. Bishop’s motion by a margin of 245 to 122. Following that vote, and for the duration of the clergy session (which adjourned later that day), no clergy member challenged the propriety of the clergy session’s decision to adopt this method of voting on whether to approve the candidates for commissioning and ordination; no member posed a question of law on that issue (or any other) during the clergy session; and no member made a motion to request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on the legality of voting procedure the body approved by adopting Rev. Bishop’s motion.
- Thereafter, a motion was made to approve all provisional members that had been recommended by BOOM, one of whom was one of the candidates at issue in JCD 1368. By a vote of 285 to 77—a 79% majority—the clergy session voted to approve those candidates. Before the vote on that motion was taken, no clergy member asked for an opportunity to question or examine any of the candidates. Nor did any member move to “divide the question,” or to “strike-out” any portion of it, or to invoke any other parliamentary procedure available to exclude or to call for a separate vote on any particular candidate. Nor, following the vote, did any member move that the clergy session seek a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on the legality of the vote insofar as it encompassed a candidate the movant believed to be ineligible for commissioning.
- In a subsequent motion, the clergy session likewise approved the class of candidates BOOM recommended for ordination by a vote of 315 to 47, representing an 87% majority. In that instance, too, no clergy member asked for an opportunity to question or examine any of the candidates for ordination; no member moved to “divide the question,” or to “strike-out” any portion of it, or to invoke any other parliamentary procedure available to exclude or to call for a separate vote on any particular candidate; and no member moved that the clergy session seek a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on the legality of the vote insofar as it encompassed a candidate believed to be ineligible for ordination.
- It was not until the next day (May 30), after the clergy session had adjourned, that Rev. Barnes presented the following three questions of law:
- Whether the “process of using block voting to approve of a group of candidates for ordination or commissioning violated the Disciplinary requirement for a 75 percent affirmative vote for each candidate and prevented the clergy session from questioning the two candidates about whom Judicial Council Ruling 1368 was made.”
- “Whether the vote to affirm the candidates was consistent with church law, in that only 2/3rds of the clergy session voted to affirm the process of voting for all candidates as a block.”
- “Whether the two candidates in question are properly candidates for commissioning and ordination.”
RULINGS AND RATIONALE
Ruling on Question 1: The Clergy Session’s decision to vote on each class of clergy candidates as a group did not violate The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (“Discipline”), nor did it prevent the clergy session from questioning any of the candidates, including the two candidates at issue in Judicial Council Decision (“JCD”) 1368.
Analysis: The Text of the Disciplinary Provisions: For each class of clergy candidates, the Discipline provides that their ordination or commissioning (as the case may be) requires that they be approved by “a three-fourths majority vote of the clergy session.” That is the requisite threshold for the election and commissioning of a provisional member under Discipline ¶ 324, which provides that a “person shall be eligible for election to provisional membership in the annual conference by a three-fourths majority vote of the clergy session . . . .” The same holds true for the election and ordination of deacons and elders. See Discipline ¶ 330 (deacon candidates “may be admitted into membership in full connection in an annual conference by three-fourths majority vote of the clergy members in full connection of the annual conference”); id. ¶ 335 (elder candidates “may be admitted into membership in full connection . . . and approved for elder’s ordination by three-fourths majority vote of the clergy members in full connection of the annual conference”).
The Discipline nowhere states that there must be a separate and distinct vote for each individual candidate. In fact, the provision governing the election and ordination of elders refers to the candidates as a group, using plural terminology, even while referencing but a single “vote” by the clergy session. Thus, Discipline ¶ 335 states:
¶ 335. Requirements for Admission to Full Connection and Ordination as Elder—Provisional members who are candidates for full connection and ordination as elders and have been provisional members for at least two years may be admitted into membership in full connection in an annual conference and approved for elder’s ordination by three-fourths majority vote of the clergy members in full connection of the annual conference. . . .
In short, the relevant text in the Discipline simply requires that all candidates for commissioning and ordination be approved by a three-fourths majority vote of the clergy session, and that is objectively what happened during the clergy session in this instance. All of the candidates were in fact approved by a three-fourths majority vote of the clergy members in full connection.
Exclusive Constitutional Prerogative of Clergy Session to Vote on All Matters Relating to Ordination: In addition, even if an annual conference’s customary practice has previously been to have a distinct vote on each candidate, our Constitution explicitly “reserves” to our clergy alone the exclusive “right to vote . . . on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy . . . .” Constitution (Discipline) ¶ 33. This constitutional prerogative effectively bestows on the clergy session the discretion to choose to approve all clergy candidates in a single vote, and the doctrine of separation of powers precludes me from second-guessing that choice under the guise of ruling on a question of law, let alone one that was not propounded until after the clergy session was concluded. See JCD 1368.
Clergy Members Remained Free to Question Individual Candidates, or to Seek to “Divide the Question,” or to Appeal the Clergy Session’s Decision to Vote on the Candidates as a Group, But They Did None of Those: Contrary to the premise of the first question of law, the clergy session’s decision to vote on the clergy candidates as a group did not “prevent the clergy session from questioning the two candidates about whom Judicial Council Ruling 1368 was made.” In fact, before the votes were taken, a clergy member posed a question to the Chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry regarding the candidates and the Chair provided an answer. No one else rose to ask any questions, or to request an opportunity to examine any of the candidates individually. Thus, while there is no question that “it is the right of the executive session of the clergy members in full connection . . . to receive all information, confidential or otherwise, related to the qualifications and/or character of any candidate or clergy member of the conference,” Discipline ¶ 635.2(m), the fact remains that nothing prevented the clergy members present during this Executive Session from exercising that right, including invoking the opportunity to examine any candidate individually.
In addition, even after the clergy session approved the concept of voting on all clergy candidates as a group, it remained available to any clergy member to move to “divide the question” pursuant to Robert’s Rules of Order § 27. Under that provision, “[w]hen a motion relating to a single subject contains several parts, each of which is capable of standing as a complete proposition if the others are removed, the parts can be separated to be considered and voted on as if they were distinct questions—by adoption of the motion for Division of a Question (or ‘to divide the question’).” Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (11th ed. 2013) § 27, at 270. Thus, upon learning that all candidates were to be elected in either of two “omnibus” motions (one for candidates to become provisional members and the other for aspiring full members), any clergy member who objected to using that procedure for any particular candidate was free to move to divide the question as to that candidate.
Alternatively, those who objected to voting for candidates as a group could have invoked a related provision in Robert’s by moving to “strike out” of the overall motions any individuals believed to be ineligible for commissioning or ordination. Robert’s at 274. And yet a further option was available: Any clergy member might have “called for a separate vote” on each clergy candidate, arguing that such elections concern “different subjects” and “must receive separate consideration and vote at the request of a single member.” Id. In such a case, a “motion for Division of Question is not used,” relieving the “single member” of the burden of persuading a majority of the membership that a separate vote is required. That said, Robert’s is clear that a demand for a separate vote in these circumstances “must be made before the question on adopting the series has actually been put to a vote.” Id. at 275 (emphasis added).
None of these options were pursued in this case. No clergy member moved to divide the question. No one moved to “strike out” any of the clergy candidates from either of the two omnibus motions. And, none rose to call for separate vote on any candidate before the votes on the omnibus motions were actually taken, or indeed to raise any objection at any time before the clergy session ended.
Under these circumstances, the clergy members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, sitting in Executive Session, fully retained and freely exercised their exclusive constitutional prerogative to vote on all matters relating to conference relations and ordination. The doctrine of separation of powers deprives bishops of any jurisdiction to nullify the clergy membership’s free exercise of that reserved power under the guise of issuing a ruling on a question of law. See JCD 1368 
Ruling on Question 2: The clergy session’s votes to elect the clergy candidates to provisional membership and full membership, respectively, were both consistent with church law, notwithstanding that (as framed in Question 2) “only 2/3rds of the clergy session voted to affirm the process of voting for all candidates as a block.” (emphasis added)
Analysis: As explained in the ruling on Question 1, there is no provision in the Discipline that prevents the clergy session from voting on the clergy candidates as a group. Nor do the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s rules require distinct votes for each individual candidate. Under those circumstances, the motion to vote on the candidates as a group did not itself require approval by a three-fourths majority of the clergy session. Rather, consistent with the “basic principle of decision in a deliberative assembly,” a simple majority vote was all that was required to cause that voting process—as distinct from the threshold required for election—“to become the act or choice of the body.” Robert’s § 1 at 4. See also id. § 44 (“the basic requirement for approval of an action or choice by a deliberative assembly, except where a rule provides otherwise, is a majority vote”) (emphasis in original).
It is not clear why Question 2 focuses on the fact that a two-thirds majority affirmed “the process of voting for all candidates as a block.” As indicated above, a simple majority was all that was needed to approve voting on the candidates as a group. A two-thirds majority might have been required only if the voting process adopted by the clergy session was precluded by the Conference’s own rules. If that were the case, then a motion to “suspend the rules” would have been required, and such a motion generally requires a two-thirds majority. Robert’s § 25 at 260-61.
In this instance, no motion to suspend the rules was made or required because no Conference rule requires clergy members to be elected on a candidate-by-candidate basis. Under these circumstances, the fact that a two-thirds majority of the clergy session voted to affirm the process of voting on the candidates as a group—when a simple majority would have sufficed, and no objection was raised at the time—only reinforces the conclusion that the clergy members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, sitting in executive session, validly exercised their exclusive constitutional “right to vote . . . on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy . . . .” Discipline ¶ 33.
Ruling on Question 3: For all practical purposes, the third question—which asks “whether the two candidates in question are properly candidates for commissioning and ordination”—is moot and hypothetical. At this juncture, the “two candidates in question” are no longer “candidates for commissioning and ordination.” Rather, one of them has already been both elected and commissioned as a provisional member, and the other has already been elected and ordained as a full elder. Under these circumstances, and in accordance with our constitutional polity and binding Judicial Council precedent, those covenantal acts—commissioning and ordination—have already been performed; those acts constitute acts of the Church; and, as such, no ruling by a bishop on a question of law can nullify what the Church has already accomplished.
Analysis: It is indisputable that, by the time these questions of law were posed, “the two candidates in question” were no longer candidates at all. Rather, by that time, the two “candidates” had been elected as provisional and full members (respectively) pursuant to votes taken during the clergy session that preceded the plenary session in which these questions were raised.
Furthermore, having been duly elected by the requisite three-fourth majorities of the Conference’s clergy members in full connection, I determined that I was duty-bound—by the Constitution and binding Judicial Council precedent—to perform the covenantal acts of commissioning and ordination that only a bishop is empowered to perform on the Church’s behalf. Refusing to do so would have effectively nullified the clergy session’s exercise of its exclusive constitutional right under ¶ 33 to elect their fellow clergy members and thereby to identify which of those members are to be commissioned and ordained by the bishop. If excluding “the two candidates in question” from standing for election in 2018 violated the separation of powers by preventing the clergy session from exercising their constitutional prerogative under ¶ 33, as the Judicial Council held in JCD 1368, it surely follows that the episcopacy cannot nullify the clergy session’s free exercise of that right, after the fact, by declining to commission and ordain those persons the clergy session has elected.
In any event, even assuming I am mistaken regarding the limits imposed by the Constitution and JCD 1368, the fact remains that the two persons in question have already been commissioned and ordained. Given that posture, Question 3 should be treated as moot and hypothetical, depriving me of jurisdiction to provide a substantive response.
The Judicial Council’s holdings in JCD 1341 supports this disposition of Question 3. In JCD 1341, the Judicial Council was asked to declare that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto violated the Discipline ¶ 304.3. In the final analysis, however, the Judicial Council held that it was not empowered to declare Bishop Oliveto’s prior consecration to be a nullity, notwithstanding the Council’s conclusion that the Bishop’s marriage to a person of the same gender gave rise to a rebuttable presumption of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” within the meaning of ¶ 304.3. Indeed, the Council was emphatic on this point, holding that “[s]elf-avowal does not nullify the consecration and cause removal from episcopal office.” JCD 1341 at 2 (emphasis added). As the Council explained, once the “covenantal act” of consecration has been performed, the validity of the bishop’s office can only be tested pursuant to the distinct procedures used “to subject the bishop’s ministerial office to review.” Id. “At all times” during the implementation of those procedures, the Council held, “the bishop’s constitutional right to fair and due process must be protected,” and the bishop will remain in good standing until “the completion of the administrative and/or judicial process.” Id.
Question 3 stands on similar footing. In addition to being the byproduct of the clergy session’s exercise of its constitutional prerogative under ¶ 33, the acts of commissioning and ordination, no less than the act of consecrating a bishop, constitute covenantal acts of the Church. See Discipline ¶ 325 (commissioning); id. ¶¶ 328-335 (ordination). And, insofar as “the two candidates in question” are concerned, those actions of the Church have already been accomplished, which necessarily makes it moot and hypothetical for me to render an episcopal ruling on “[w]hether the two candidates in question are properly candidates for commissioning and ordination.”
It may be that, at some point in the future, the ministerial office of the two clergy members that are the focus of the pending questions will be subjected to ministerial review. Nevertheless, JCD 1341 teaches that the Discipline’s administrative and judicial procedures are the only mechanisms that can be invoked for that purpose or otherwise to challenge the good standing of a clergy member that has already been commissioned or ordained. Nothing short of such procedures—whether it be a request for a declaratory decision by the Judicial Council (as in JCD 1341) or a request for an episcopal ruling of law (as here)—can serve as a predicate for nullifying the covenantal acts commissioning and ordination.
Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling
June 29, 2019
 Rev. Barnes’s questions were preceded by a somewhat lengthy introduction. The entire statement, concluding with the questions, is here.
 The 75% threshold is also required for those seeking a license for Pastoral Ministry under Discipline ¶ 315.6(d), and local pastors standing for election as associate members under Discipline ¶ 322.
 It is also notable that no clergy member ever sought to challenge the legality of the clergy sessions votes by moving to have the annual conference request a declaratory decision pursuant to Discipline ¶ 2610.
 In JCD 1341, the Judicial Council was also asked to declare invalid Bishop Oliveto’s “nomination, election, . . . and/or assignment as bishop.” JCD 1341. The Council held that the petitioner in that case lacked standing to challenge Bishop Oliveto’s nomination, election, or assignment, but accepted jurisdiction to render a declaration regarding the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s consecration.